Amul, Naturals & Pabbas: My Love Affair With Desi Ice-Cream

Amul, Naturals & Pabbas: My Love Affair With Desi Ice-Cream

I still remember the day vividly. My younger brother, all of 5, had just thrown a half-eaten orange ice lolly from our car window onto a stranger outside. The events that followed next play out in my head in slow motion. The ice lolly, chewed and brittle on the edges, was still dripping zesty, orangey goo when it went and whacked the middle-aged man right on his face as he exited a shop. His shock was only matched by mine, the easily-spotted guilty party thanks to our give-away orange lips. The car moved on in the nick of time, but I couldn’t share my brother’s relief or amusement. Half my heart remained behind with half a wasted lolly, never to be cherished the way it deserved. Even 13 years later, my loyalty to local ice-cream has never dimmed.

To be fair, these lollies weren’t hard to procure. At the cost of only 5 rupees at the time, these were delights all children looked forward to after meals filled with spicy curries and loads of chapattis; especially during the dusty, humid summers of the little town in Western Uttar Pradesh that I grew up in. The dark, lanky fellow who pulled the local favourite Rachna Ice Cream cart into our neighbourhood every summer evening held the antidote(s) to all of life’s problems. Orange lollies were for days that my mother was most satisfied, the cherry on top for my good behaviour. A crunchy chocolate bar when I would score well in a class test, and a soft, strawberry swirl was the perfect end to a meal in which my mother had forced us to eat all our least favourite vegetables. Over the years, those summer evenings when we huddled around the Rachna cart with our little hands reaching out for our favourite flavours, have become a testament to the wonders of desi ice-cream. As I grew up a little more, more ice-cream brands made their way into our city. Amul Sundaes became a regular product in our freezer and Mother Dairy Chillz Cones became our new after school snack. These were my new favourites, playing second fiddle only to the Rachna Orange Lollies that came before them.

Orange Lollies. Image Credit: Twicopy

A Small-Town Love Affair

Being brought up in a small town, ice-creams, it seems, were our first tryst with ‘the exotic.’ A chance to enjoy something both far-removed from the Indian taste palate we had access to, yet familiar. Like most other middle-class families, dining out was a concept we had only just begun to warm up to. Newer cuisines took on an Indianised avatar and began to creep their way into the hinterland. Desi ice-creams thus became our introduction to that hyrbid world of dishes that were both Indian and un-Indian all at once. So while everyone hogged their way through the paneer tikka masala, heaps of oily chola bhaturas, chowmien and Manchurian, I made sure that I always kept some space in my stomach and lots of it in my heart for my favourite dessert.

A Big-City Dream

But just like everything, my relationship with ice-cream changed when I moved to Pune for college. New people, new friends, new lessons, and...unrecognisable ice cream? Being away from home for the first time meant a world world where food went beyond my mother’s cooking. Vada Pavs replaced breakfast’s aloo parathas and mess food meant that everything from dal to sambar tasted the same. As I tried adjusting to the relatively narrower taste palette of the region, where everything was either too sweet or too spicy, I looked back to ice-creams as my anchor.

But instead of the little ol’ cart with orange lollies and chocolate bars, I was greeted only by shinier cousins. Baskins and Cream Stones lined all the streets and the idea of an ice-cream cart seemed quaint and far away. I couldn’t be sure if it was the place or the times that assisted the change, but I found myself scooping up Mississipi Muds and Nutella Oreos to quell the cravings. Not that I am complaining. I love ice-cream in any form, but the mystery of desi ice-creams’ disappearance haunted my cravings. Soon I discovered Pune had desi dairy products of its own it treasured, such as Rajmandir and Mohan, but they were too far off for me to visit them regularly. A few months later, my prayers were answered when a classmate (and local Punekar) informed me that the delivery mechanisms had changed, but the ice-creams were still very much available.

A bakery nearby sold Amul ice-creams and I was ecstatic to reset my after-dinner ritual. Every day at 9.30 pm I would walk to the bakery with my friends. No parental supervision meant indulging in unlimited ice-creams. An Amul Frostix for a day when the mess food has been utterly disappointing and a Butterscotch Tricone to end a slightly better meal. The rich chocolate-chip sundae was to comfort myself on the first day of my period. Birthday treats or post-exam celebrations happened at Naturals; whose simple, delectable and fruity flavours matched the simple classics of the local ice cream brands, back home. Be it the nutty Anjeer or the absolutely divine mango; Naturals was always easy on our student pockets and never disappointed.

Amul Frostix. Image Credit: Price Jet

A Homecoming

A few months ago, when I returned to my hometown after finishing college, I was surprised to see that an outlet of Baskin Robbins had opened in the main market. But the crowd still gathered around a Mother Dairy cart that stood just a few meters away. The Rachna Carts were nowhere to be seen, vanished like many of our early preferences. At first, I associated multinational ice-cream chains’ influx and popularity with class aspirations. But the deeper I looked, it seemed like there was always spots reserved for local dairy haunts too–places that people swore by no matter how many Haagan Daz outlets opened around them. Shops like Dinshaws in Nagpur, Mewar in Mumbai, Havmor in Gujarat, Naturals, Creambell, Vadilal, Amul pan India cut across demographics and aspirations.

Bigger, Better Things?

After 3 years in Pune, and 3 months at home; life took me to the so-called biggest ‘desi’ ice-cream parlour of them all. When I moved to Mumbai; there was one name on my priority list to be checked off. K Rustom’s ice-cream sandwiches were the stuff urban legends were made of. To be honest, I had expected something a lot grander. A rather spacious, non-descript place amongst grey shutters with cream-coloured walls as old as the shop itself. I ordered a Chocolate Roasted Almond Crunch Ice-Cream Sandwich and the man behind the counter handed it over to me wrapped in butter paper; a slab of creamy chocolate drizzled with crunchy almonds, placed neatly in between two thin orange wafers. Without warning, the memory of my first ice-cream sandwich hit hard–a Kwality Walls Biki Max. Rich vanilla oozing out of thick chocolate biscuits and that was what I had come to Rustom’s expecting. This ice-cream sandwich was good, no doubt. It was crispy, mouthful and creamy, but it wasn’t anything out of the world, like I had been told. Yet, as I was munching on the ends, I saw a family of five; three children and their parents each sampling a different flavour, rejoicing in every bite and tasting each other’s ice cream sandwiches. A wave of nostalgia hit me as I realised that for Mumbaikars, Rustom mattered not just because of their good ice-cream sandwiches but because of the memories and the old-world charm they associated with it.

Ice Cream Sandwiches at K Rustom. Image Credit:

This regional ice-cream loyalty followed me across the city. Even as I searched for desi ice-cream carts across Mumbai, and gave in to flashier offerings (Oreo Cremalette anyone?) I found myself drawn into the nooks and crannies that better represented the city. A man I dated considered himself an ice-cream connoisseur and introduced me to the many charms of Apsara. One of Mumbai’s oldest and favourite ice-cream joints, it first ventured its way into the market in 1971, when ice-cream was still a commodity meant for the elite. Now, it was a place packed even on weekdays, where you could gorge on pani puri flavoured ice-cream, an experiment that preceded all waves of ultra-modern cooking that dominate the city’s more trendy culinary landscape. Bonus? It doesn’t use any artificial flavourings or preservatives. Next up was a midnight hunt for Bachelorr’s, Marine Drive’s post-party, mid-drive destination for anyone with a craving. Though its green chilli flavoured ice-cream’s infamy preceded it, I opted for a Sitafal Mango Fantasy instead and wasn’t the least bit disappointed.

Pani Puri Ice Cream at Apsara. Image Credit: MetalEater US

Comfort Is An Ice-Cream Cone

I continue to observe ever-changing ice-cream eating habits across metropolitans much to my loved ones’ chagrin. Understandably, it seems a peculiar habit. Yet, over the years, i’ve been able to dissect just what it is about the wonderful world of desi ice-creams that draws me into their world. Like so many Indians, migrating from small towns and villages into our big, bad cities in search of opportunities can be daunting. In bright, shiny worlds dotted with proof of a new world order, finding the local favourites has become my way of finding home no matter where I go. Comfort, after all, is a Rachna Orange Lolly when things didn’t go my way.

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